Poker Face - Russell Crowe - Screen Media Films
Credit: Brook Rushton
by Matt Lynch Featured Film Genre Views

Poker Face — Russell Crowe

November 17, 2022

Even given its obvious vanity vehicle motivations, Poker Face is a dire affair.

Russell Crowe returns to the director’s chair for Poker Face, an unwieldy, overstuffed, and ultimately baffling vanity project that somehow manages to be boring even while it seems to change into a different movie every 20 minutes or so. Crowe also stars (and also co-wrote) as Jake, a billionaire who built his fortune first by playing online poker and then by developing a military-grade surveillance program along with his best friend Andrew (RZA). After an ayahuasca trip with a shaman, during which it’s revealed that he has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Jake decides to gather all of his childhood buddies together to resolve the issues in their lives. There’s Michael (Liam Hemsworth), who has fallen deep into alcoholism and is suicidal; Paul (Steve Bastoni), a prominent politician mired in debt and scandal; and Alex (Aden Young), who is secretly having an affair with Jake’s wife, Nicole (Brooke Satchwell).

First, Jake concocts a weird contest involving $5 million and racing some luxury roadsters. Then, he forces everyone to play a round of high stakes poker with that money (to be dealt by a woman played by Elsa Pataky, for some reason). Then he says that nobody can leave because he’s poisoned them all. The game seems to just end abruptly when Andrew finally arrives, although it’s apparently a surprise that he’s there, which makes very little sense. Oh, and one more thing: Jake’s compound is about to come under siege from a group of art thieves determined to make off with Jake’s collection. But that doesn’t happen until roughly an hour into this 95-minute movie, and it thoroughly derails what little actual story and character motivations have come before it, turning the climax into a series of fights and a tables-turning moment involving the aforementioned poison, although nothing ever comes of Jake’s threat that he’s dosed all his buddies.

Crowe’s direction here is purely workmanlike, mostly close-ups that capture the characters’ endless expository monologuing. Those speeches themselves are intensely actor-ly, too; everyone gets one or two awards clips to chew on, with Crowe’s performance wavering somewhere between steely reserve and equally steely vulnerability. Beyond those recognizable surface traits, though, there’s just nothing really doing here; this is undoubtedly some sort of passion project for the actor-director, but it’s not clear why, and the constant narrative and tonal whiplash suggests a film that was probably cut down from a much longer work (not that there’s any indication more minutes could help matters). Ultimately, even as star vanity vehicles go, Poker Face is dire.